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Suu Kyi’s Ministry Sides With Hard-Line Buddhists

Buddhist monks outside the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 28, protesting its use of “Rohingya” to describe Myanmar's stateless Muslims. Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Shibani Mahtani and Myo Myo

Myanmar advises embassies not to call country’s stateless Muslim minority ‘Rohingya’

YANGON, Myanmar — The foreign ministry here, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has advised embassies to stop using the term “Rohingya” to describe the country’s stateless Muslim minority, acceding to a demand by hard-line Buddhists. 

Nationalist groups, who view Rohingya as an Islamist threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, insist they be called “Bengalis,” implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya say they have lived in Myanmar for generations and are a distinct ethnic group. 

Kyaw Zay Ya, a deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that the advisory was sent to diplomats this week. “We have never accepted this term,” he said.

Boys stand among debris after fire at a camp for Rohingya destroyed many shelters. Photo: soe zeya tun/Reuters

The previous, military-linked government similarly rejected the use of Rohingya in favor of Bengali. 

In an interview, Mr. Kyaw Zay Ya noted that “it is not possible to enforce” the directive, but said it would be up to foreign governments whether to comply. 

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Gabrielle Price wouldn’t confirm whether the U.S. Embassy in Yangon had received the directive. She said the U.S. believes groups should call themselves what they wish. 

“If members of a population identify as ‘Rohingya,’ we respect their ability to self-identify by using this term. This is not a political decision,” she said. 

Myanmar excludes the Rohingya from a list of more than 100 official ethnic groups in the country, and the use of Bengali distances the government from their claim to citizenship. The previous government also issued directives and pamphlets to the media and the United Nations during international summits held in the country. 

Ms. Suu Kyi herself has never used the word Rohingya publicly, and has been widely criticized for not speaking out clearly in defense of the group. 

Many human rights groups and Rohingya themselves want the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and her new democratically elected government to improve their plight, including extending basic rights like the freedom of movement and allowing them to return to their homes, rather than living in camps. 

Human Rights Watch, in an open letter Thursday to President Htin Kyaw, said improving human rights and humanitarian conditions for Rohingya Muslims was a “major challenge” and that “long-standing restrictions on the basic rights of the Rohingya…should be speedily removed.” 

Some 120,000 Rohingya are living in squalid camps following sectarian riots between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 in Rakhine state, which forced them from their villages and left more than 100 dead. They reside in western Myanmar near the Bangladesh border, unable to return to their villages for fear of further violence, and relying on foreign aid for support. 

Underlining their situation, a fire in a camp for displaced Rohingya on Tuesday destroyed 44 longhouses where at least 2,000 people lived, the United Nations reported.

The ministry’s advisory follows protests at the U.S. Embassy over a statement of condolence issued for an accidental boat sinking on April 19 in which at least 22 people died. The embassy referred to the victims as Rohingyas, and hard-line Buddhist groups responded angrily. 

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the embassy last week to call on the U.S. and other countries to drop the term or be labeled as enemies of Myanmar. 

By reaffirming the previous government’s directive, the ruling National League for Democracy party, which is headed by Ms. Suu Kyi, has now weighed in on the Buddhists’ side. Ms. Suu Kyi also holds a de facto prime ministerial role of state counselor. 

Write to Shibani Mahtani at

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